President Barack Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address on Tuesday, and the first of his second term. In it, Obama laid out a surprisingly ambitious agenda from a president stuck with a radical, do-nothing House of Representatives.
While it remains to be seen how much of his agenda Obama can push through, the president’s speech had some outstanding moments, and proposals that hopefully will be enacted sooner, rather than later.
#1: “In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness, they’d devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. And that’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts — known here in Washington as ‘the sequester’ — are a really bad idea.
“Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse.”
Obama called out Republicans for their continued foot-dragging on dealing with the sequester. While the draconian cuts to defense and health care will have a negative effect on the economy, Republicans appear to be boxed in by a refusal to raise taxes by one dime more.
Obama rightly called out Republicans for their recalcitrance, and moreover, attacked the Republican “cut our way to growth” plan as the pipe dream it is. After doing that, Obama went on to reach out to Republicans, saying he was “prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”
Naturally, Republicans will refuse that proffered hand, as they have done repeatedly since taking over the House in 2011. That’s okay, though; Obama once again appears to be the magnanimous party, offering to work with his opponents even as they refuse to entertain even the barest thought of working with him. If and when the sequester cuts happen, Republicans will have to take ownership of them.
#2: “Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before itís too late. [...]
“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.†I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Obama took his toughest stand yet on global warming, flatly telling Republicans that if they won’t work with him, he’ll go it alone and take executive action to fight carbon emissions.
Obama’s threat is not an idle one. Courts have upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and that means that the EPA could simply regulate carbon emissions under powers given to them by the Clean Air Act. Indeed, the EPA is already regulating carbon emissions from automobiles and stationary sources.
Obviously, more could be done with the cooperation of Congress, and Obama is right to seek out Republican help. Still, assuming that Congress refuses to act, Obama can take a number of steps to help reduce the long-term damage from greenhouse gasses.
#3: “[R]right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities, they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Nowís the time to do it.”
Obama made a straightforward call for comprehensive immigration reform, but wisely steered clear of specifics. Why is that wise? Because there is, at least for the moment, slow but bipartisan movement on immigration reform in Congress, and pushing too hard is only likely to upset the apple cart.
He did, however, make a strong call to fix “the†legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.” That’s important, because right now, legal immigration policy is a labyrinthine disaster. Streamlining legal immigration would have the salient effect of discouraging undocumented immigration — why sneak into the country when you can enter it legally?
#4: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, our mothers, our daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence. Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Womenís Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago. And I now urge the House to do the same. [...]
“And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a — a living equal to their efforts and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.”
Obama once again made women’s rights a key part of his address, calling on Congress to pass VAWA and the Paycheck Fairness Act. The move was not just obviously right — only a Republican could oppose keeping women from being abused, or making sure people get equal pay for equal work — but it was a nice political shot at the man giving the Republican Response to the State of the Union, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio voted against VAWA early Tuesday, and then had the audacity to go on national television Tuesday night, making his case against Obama. By highlighting both VAWA and his vice president’s role in crafting it, Obama reminded women and those who care about women that Republicans are simply not on their side.
Karma being what it is, Rubio’s speech will be remembered most for his weird water gulping. I know that his bout of cottonmouth was probably not divinely inspired, but on the off chance it was, I salute whichever higher power is responsible.
#5: “[T]oday, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief weíve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. Thatís wrong. Thatís why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.
“Tonight, letís declare that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty — and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.”
No, $9 an hour isn’t going to make anyone rich. Even working full-time, it’s just $18,720 a year. It’s not quite a living wage. Still, it’s a heck of a lot better than the $7.25 an hour it’s sitting at today. Moreover, Obama proposed adding an automatic cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage, so that it keeps pace with inflation. That’s nothing to sneeze at; if 1968′s minimum wage had been indexed to inflation, the minimum wage today would be $10.51 an hour.
We should push to have the minimum wage raised to a living wage level, but for now, it’s a big step forward to have a president advocating a minimum wage that’s above the poverty line.
#6: “It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence, but this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around commonsense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. [...]
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.”
This is a case where the text cannot do justice to a speech’s delivery. Obama issued a direct challenge to Republicans and pro-NRA Democrats, demanding an up-or-down vote on gun control measures. He demanded it not in his name, but “because in the two months since Newtown,†more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Obama cited some of the victims — 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton; former Rep. Gabby Giffords, R-Ariz.; the victims of mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. After each, Obama repeated that these victims deserved a vote — and by the end of the sequence, a number of others were repeating it with him.
Moreover, Obama didn’t demand passage of all legislation. He told Congress, “If you want to vote no, thatís your choice.” That’s as much a sign that things have changed since Newtown as anything. A year ago, most pro-gun legislators would have welcomed the chance to vote against gun regulations. Now, Obama is telling them that he won’t let them kill legislation in the dead of night.
#7: “We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her, because Desiline is 102 years old.
“And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, ‘I Voted.’”
This was a great moment simply because of the presence of Desiline Victor in the chambers. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impressed by a 22-year-old willing to wait six hours to vote. For a centenarian to do so is remarkable. What’s more, it’s obscene — there’s no reason that anybody should have to take an entire day to vote. Victor is an African American from Florida; the long wait was not accidental. Republicans have been trying with all their might to keep non-white voters from voting. I’m grateful that Desiline Victor refused to let them, and I’m mortified that she had to do so.
Image Credit: White House